Wow. Understanding chicken labeling is WAY more complicated than it should be. It's not like you have a long string of complicated chemicals and preservatives. But it is the simplicity of the labeling that makes it so complicated. "Natural." What's simpler than that? There are a lot of assumptions in the labels that we the consumer make (and the chicken supplier wants us to make, by the way). We assume that organic is free-range, natural has no salt solution injected, and Amish is both free-range and natural.
We all have different standards by which we choose our meat. For me, I want chicken (and eggs for that matter) from free-range farmers. I want organic. I want minimally processed. I want it antibiotic-free. Which of the current labels gives me all of this? Chances are, if it is in the grocery store, you will not find all of it. However, here's some basic information to help you decide. (Label-Reading is imperative!)
- HORMONES ARE NOT ALLOWED. Period. The FDA does not allow the use of hormones in chickens. So, if a package says this, they are offering you nothing more than FDA regulations (not an better product).
- Antibiotics - They are used in all standard chicken operations. The FDA was going to limit the use of antibiotics in July 2008 because of a growing fear of resistance, but backed down at the last minute (???!!!) Here's an important piece of information - even if a chicken grower does not administer antibiotics in the chicken coop, all of the large-company chicken growers' eggs are injected prior to arriving at the chicken farm. Tyson chickens used to have an antibiotic-free label because they injected the antibiotics in the birds prior to hatching (they felt that since they were not hatched, they were not really chickens and so they could say that their chickens were not raised with antibiotics). You may have purchased those a"antibiotic-free" birds thinking you were getting truely antibiotic-free. The USDA told the company to remove the labeling as it is not truthful. A lawsuit followed which has just recently been settled (not in Tyson's favor). Now the company MUST remove any non-antibiotic labeling of their chickens (http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Legislation/Tyson-agrees-to-pay-5m-in-antibiotic-free-chicken-settlement) If you are interested in more information about the use of antibiotics in chicken farming, follow this link: http://www.miller-mccune.com/health/playing-chicken-with-antibiotic-resistance-3533/
- Natural - only means the product not contain anything artificial or synthetic and that it is minimally processed. A salt solution injected in t he meat is allowed under the "natural" designation. Check the package as they are required to list what they are injected with even if they are called "natural."
- Organic - According to the USDA "Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones" (from USDA publication "Organic Production/Organic Food" http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml). It DOES NOT mean free-range.
- Free-Range - Only birds with access to the outdoors can be called free-range birds. Free-range does not mean organic.
- Amish - There is no official standard for the "Amish" label. In fact, when one Amish brand was contacted, (http://blog.radicalchicken.com/?p=4) it turns out that "most" of the chickens came from Amish farms (not ALL), and they were processed in the same manner and along side the rest of the chickens of the mass-produced USDA chickens (not by an Amish farm). There is no guarantee that they are free of anything unless stated, there is no guarantee they are organic unless stated, there is no guarantee they are free-range unless stated.
- Eggs - Much of the same information applies to eggs. Below is an excellent resource for egg labeling:
FYI - I have decided that the only way to get what I'm looking for is to work directly with the farmer (or a distributor for a local farmer. I order my eggs from Bruno's Organics (http://www.thejuicegarden.com/). They provide eggs from "pastured and organically fed chickens ." I have chicken (the meat, not live birds :-) coming from Seven Son's Meat Co. (http://www.sevensons.net/about-our-meat.htm) where their poultry's food consist of "fresh grass, leaves, plant roots and all the little bugs, worms and small critters they can find. The birds are also given access to free choice feed which consist of mainly ground seeds like corn & soybeans mixed with plenty of vitamins and minerals (NO drugs and NO antibiotics of any kind".) FYI Seven Son's is taking orders now for a March 20th pick-up.